Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ongoing D&D Hacks

Stopped in at a used book store today (Page1 Books in Albuquerque) and picked up a softcover printing of the old AD&D 2e Spells & Magic sourcebook. I'm glad to have it back in physical format (I have a PDF of it), because I think it was the most successful of the Players' Option books, particularly for the variant magic systems it collated.

This, naturally, got me thinking about sitting down and formalizing a 2e houserules/hack project that's been sort of dancing around in my head for a while now. My few notes on this are on my desktop hard drive back home, but this is what, I believe, I've got so far:
  • Use Castles & Crusades as the base system, then add 2e sub-systems to my heart's content.
  • For example, classes are pared way down. Humans can choose from the 3e core of Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior. I plan to adapt the simplified NPC classes from Mongoose's Lone Wolf RPG to this purpose, when possible. Demi-human races become classes.
  • These broad classes are then, optionally, customized by choosing kits. I haven't narrowed the list down yet, but races will get to choose from a customized list (with Elves mostly choosing from Druid kits, Dwarves from Fighter kits, and Halflings from Thief kits) and each human class will have access to a customized list as well.
  • I intend to use many of the alternate magic systems from Spells & Magic for individual classes and/or kits. Still haven't figured out how exactly I'm going to go about doing that, but I have some notes back home.
  • I'll use the Proficiency system from 2e, but I might use the 4e approach to resolving Proficiency checks: possessing a Proficiency gives you a "skilled" bonus to your roll.
That's about all I've got so far. I have to sit down with my old Core Rules CD and 2e PDFs and see what else I want to graft onto the C&C skeleton. What will I use it for? Probably sandboxing in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and that's about it. But it's a fun little project nonetheless.

My Uresia hack has been on hold for the last couple months, but I've been thinking about getting back into it. Inspired by this post by Alexis, I've begun seriously considering using a card system for the whole game. I mean, the setting is inspired partly by CRPGs, after all, and cards would be an awesome way to evoke the feeling of a typical CRPG "character sheet," complete with item slots and "tabs." I'm envisioning one's character sheet taking the form of a stack of cards. One card would be the character's basic info (attributes, AC, hit points, saves bonuses, etc.), other cards would consist of magic items, spells memorized, henchmen, etc. Maybe even a different card for each class and each level, listing current bonuses, abilities, and attack matrices. This very well might turn into quite a little project....

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Globe o' Mystery

So in my semi-regular Rifts sandbox campaign, I had an incident occur to cap off the last session. Basically, Alex's intrepid Cyber-Knight accepted a mission from a Native American shaman to travel through a rift which granted access to the basement of an evil sorcerer's tower. In said basement was an Item of Power (TM) that the shaman thought it would be best if said evil sorcerer didn't have access to.

So Cyber-Knight hops through, grabs the Item, which happens to be a crystal orb about the size of a soccer ball, and is immediately waylaid by the sorcerer's gargoyle guards. The rift is shutting, so C-K throws the orb through, the shaman catches it, and the rift closes for good. We left off with the C-K having dispatched the few gargoyle guards in that room and pondering how he was going to sneak out of the tower unnoticed.

SO. The reason I'm posting about this is that I want to have that orb show up as a sort of recurring McGuffin over the course of the campaign--and I'd like to come up with a suitably gonzo idea for what exactly the orb is.

I'm going to follow Doc Rotwang!'s advice and do some brainstorming, and my first step in that direction is putting this out in the Interwebs to see if any of my esteemed, erudite readers would like to offer up any esteemed, erudite suggestions of their own. If I end up using your idea, you win my thanks and a place in my collective gaming memories.

To recap, it's a crystal orb about the size of a soccer ball. I described it, in the few seconds the PC was holding it, as "appearing to contain a whole miniature planet," but that could easily be hand-waved away as merely an illusion or trick of the light, or as perhaps one facet of the orb. Furthermore, note that the PC did hold it, and tossed it into the hands of the shaman, so clearly whatever its powers or other properties may be, they are not activated by touch. And remember, this is a gonzo science-fantasy-anything-goes-magic-meets-technology setting, so don't feel constrained by such petty concerns as reality or continuity.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Careful what you look for...

An Antarctic mountain range that rivals the Alps in elevation will be probed this month by an expedition of scientists using airborne radar and other Information Age tools to virtually "peel away" more than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of ice covering the peaks.

One of the mysteries of the mountain range is that current evidence suggests that it "shouldn't be there" at all.

Perhaps we'll soon be seeing our first satellite images of cyclopean cities and shoggoths?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Checking In

I'm out in Santa Fe for two and a half weeks, visiting my folks and generally relaxing, so things have been a bit quiet on the gaming front. Here's what I've been up to:
  • Preparing for the GURPS campaign I'll be starting up when I get back. I can't wait--it should be a real blast.
  • Reading over Supplement V: Carcosa, which I ordered and had sent here, since I couldn't wait to get home to take a look at it. JimLOTFP nicely encapsulates both the awesomeness of the product and the ridiculousness of the "controversy" that's surrounded its release. My buddy Alex is set to run an infrequent sandbox campaign using Swords & Wizardry and Carcosa after I get back. I can't wait.
  • Speaking of infrequent gaming with Alex, I started running a sort of hex crawl* Rifts campaign for him last month. We've only got one session under our belts so far, but it's shaping up to be a lot of good old fashioned science-fantasy monster bashing.
  • And speaking of good gaming blogs, Sham's Grog n' Blog has been running an amazing series of glimpses into his mind-bogglingly awesome mega-dungeon. Check it out for an example of dungeoneering at its finest!
*For the Rifts hex crawl, I simply super-imposed a hex grid over a map of Rifts North America, made a chart to roll on for each new hex entered that will determine chance of encounter, type of encounter (some are keyed, some are totally random), terrain, and climate, and said, "Here's your starting point--where do you want to go?" After the highly-structured format of the Great Pendragon Campaign, it's been a real breath of fresh air to take such a "seat of your pants" approach; a lot of lessons of how to pull off such an endeavor--like the importance of having a list of NPC names to consult when an unexpected meeting took place--were quickly re-learned in that first session.

Monday, October 6, 2008

End of an Era

The Pendragon campaign came to a sudden, unexpected, and wholly satisfying conclusion this weekend.

After a couple weeks of missed sessions, Des and I were anxious to get caught up and press forward with the narrative. But a couple things had changed along the way. First off, the Yellow Plague had, thanks to me rolling a bunch of 6s, completely devasted the various NPC offspring that had been generated over the course of two years' play. I'm talking everyone dying except for four main characters.

That definitely changed the expectations of the campaign, and it got me thinking. Even though I was using The Great Pendragon Campaign as a framework, it wasn't a true GPC campaign, if for no other reason than we started the action in 515, not 485. So why not wrap things up a little early, rather than going all the way to the bitter end? It's my intention to someday run the whole GPC from start to finish--that would be the time, I think, to play through the Grail and Twilight periods. I ran my idea past Des and she agreed with the logic, if a bit sadly in the face of such a long campaign finally entering its "end game".

Nonetheless, I had expected things to keep going for a bit, probably up until the appearance of the Grail changed all the rules. And I had planned a little epilogue to take place in the final year of the story arc to wrap up some old enmities.

But the way things turned out, it was much better, and happier for a change. After a climactic battle against the diabolic forces of Duke Klingsor in which Des's character was quite nearly killed, saved only by the ministrations of King Oberon's healers, everyone basically "won the game". Des's first character, Dame Vivien, retired to the land of the fey with Sir Neilyn, her star-crossed lover, as did the half-fey Sir Gwadyn, Des's second character. Vivien's son Dexter, the one who had nearly gotten killed, took over as Duke of Benwick back in the mortal world.

I provided a brief epilogue that tied up the surprisingly few remaining loose ends, and we ended the campaign on a rather happy note--the surviving characters were all older, wiser, perhaps a little less quick to laugh (in the case of Dexter and Gwadyn, at least--Vivien was always a bit grim), largely free of the dark karma that befell Arthur's realm, fitting since the family was largely based out of the Continent. Of course, grim times (Dark Ages, if you will) are in store for everyone, and who's to say what will become of Vivien's legacy...but that's the story for another day.

So that's that. The longest campaign I've ever run or been involved with--two-and-a-half years of real time (counting the extended break in the middle), 34 years of game time, three generations of characters. That's going to be hard to top. So what's next? Well, I'm going out of town for a couple weeks, but when I get back, GURPS!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Irons in the Fire; or, When the Heck Am I Going to Find the Time to Play All These Games?

My gaming Renaissance continues. And it's getting to the point where I've got a short list accumulating of campaigns I want to run. This is the problem with being mostly the GM--it does tend to limit how many games one can, at any given time, be participating in. Ah well. In an effort to help straighten things out, I'm going to list what I've got in the fire, as it were, and perhaps in the future come back and cross off each item as I (hopefully) get around to running it. (Ha!)
  • First up is, of course, the vaunted Pendragon campaign. This venerable old bear ("Old big bear! He likes the honey!") of a campaign is actually due to wrap up fairly soon, probably in the next month or two. Exciting and a little scary at the same time, especially for Des, who has come to view the campaign with the same level of commitment and excitement usually reserved for long-running television series. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, making way for...
  • One or two GURPS campaigns. We (Des and I) have a couple in the works. First up will be a grittily realistic game with Des playing herself as a 10-year-old. Can't go into too much more detail at the moment, but rest assured, things are going to go nuts once the campaign gets under way. I'm rather looking forward to it.
  • After that is a GURPS Castle Falkenstein campaign (for which Des has already made a character) that will be as over-the-top cinematic as the first GURPS game was realistic.
My hope with these two campaigns (each of which I would like to see last several months, if not upwards of a year) is to fully explore the GURPS system and in so doing establish a familiarity with it that allows GURPS to become the "go-to" choice for future campaigns. Having said that, all my other irons are specifically for systems other than GURPS. C'est la vie, what? Ironically, a couple of them still retain some sort of link to GURPS, so there's that, I guess.

So much for the three "primary" campaigns. In a bit of unintentional symmetry, I've got three let's call them "secondary" campaigns I'd dearly love to run (or play in, I suppose, although I'm not sure how exactly that might work). These may very well see the light of day simultaneous to my one-on-one campaigns with Des, as they're shorter in scope and could perhaps be run on an occasional, ad-hoc basis.
  • Let's see...first, there's Mythic Russia. I first learned of this game about a year ago, but was repeatedly stymied in my attempts to find a cheap copy. I finally resolved to pay out the nose to get it shipped from the UK publisher--and it was worth it, I have to say. I have a long-standing love of Russian fantasy and culture. GURPS Russia. The films of Ptushko. The art of Ivan Bilibin. So imagine my joy to discover an RPG not only dedicated to such, but using the Heroquest system, the product of two of my favorite game designers, Greg Stafford and Robin D. Laws!

    Well, the book so far is meeting and exceeding expectations, and I can't wait to get my teeth sunk in. I especially like the fact that rules for peripheral cultures, such as Teutonic Knights, Mongols, and Sibyriaks, are included. I'm already thinking of an idea of a Sami noble forced to leave the tribe and venture south, sort of in the vein of Princess Mononoke. There's also a sample adventure complete with pre-generated characters that looks like guaranteed fun--only problem is that it works best with 3-5 players, and I'd be hard-pressed to gather more than two players at the mo'.
  • Ever since downloading the GURPS setting Tales of the Solar Patrol a couple months ago, I've been itching to do a retro-sci fi game (thus my purchase of the Dan Dare and Flash Gordon books--inspiration, you know). But I wasn't totally sold on GURPS as the system, for some reason. I think it's because I prefer GURPS for hard sf, like Transhuman Space or cyberpunky outings. For space opera, I craved something else. Then I read Dr. Rotwang!'s review of StarSIEGE-Event Horizon, and I knew I'd found my system. Light on rules, a "toolkit" approach (perfect for adapting existing settings), and it comes in a boxed set with extra copies of the player's manual? Yes please! An added bonus is that it's based off the SIEGE Engine (haw) first featured in Castles & Crusades, so it should work with my goal of doing a sci-fi/fantasy crossover using the Rifts Phase World setting (see how I snuck another potential campaign in there? So much for symmetry). I've been looking for the "right" set of space opera sci-fi rules for years, hopefully this will pan out.
  • This last one requires an explanation more arcane than it needs to be, but I'll try my best to keep it succinct. Back in the day, when I was first getting into gaming, I caught Robin Hood fever. How could I not, what with the Kevin Costner vehicle in theaters and the Patrick Bergen/Uma Thurman version airing of FOX? And some cagey sales rep at my local B. Dalton's Books seemed to sense this, as he or she ordered a copy of I.C.E.'s Robin Hood: Giant Outlaw Campaign, a fine little setting sourcebook that came with two (count 'em!) different outlaw campaigns ("giant" indeed).

    Now, being young and naive, and having recently purchased--you guessed it--the GURPS Basic Set, and taking the blurb on the back about being able to use the system to run any RPG adventure supplement (not realizing that you had to, you know, actually have a grasp of both the GURPS system and the system you were converting from), I snagged the Giant Outlaw Campaign, my head filled with dreams sending a group of Merry Men off into the dark depths of Sherwood.

    Well, much like Daffy Duck repeatedly getting his bill bashed in by a rebounding buck-and-a-quarterstaff, my efforts to make use of my newly-purchased Giant Outlaw Campaign proved both elusive and frustrating. The dry text and "wargamey" layout (in which each subject was divided up by decimal numbers [Section 2.0, sub-section 2.0.1, etc.]) were also a big turnoff to my 13-year-old brain. The fact I lacked any semblance of anyone to game with at the time also didn't help. And when I did get a group together a year or so later, they proved singularly uninterested in the setting, Robin Hood fever having long since passed. But I held on to the damn thing, if only out of nostalgia.

    But now, I think, its time has come. After I picked up Burning Wheel this year, it immediately became my "go to" game for a certain brand of grittily-realistic medieval gaming (not to mention medieval Japanese campaigns, thanks to the "Blossoms Are Falling" sourcebook--GAAH! Another campaign snuck in!). And the Robin Hood sourcebook is a perfect fit. Very little conversion will even be necessary, and lo these many years later I'm actually familiar enough with both the Rolemaster and HERO system mechanics presented therein, so what work there is to do will be a relative snap.
So yeah, we'll see what I actually manage to get around to, and when.

In the meantime, I've got the Pendragon campaign, the PbP 2e/Planescape game, and the occasional nostalgic game of Rifts with Alex to keep me busy. Ooh, and Halloween is approaching, which means it will soon be time for our annual "Call-of-Cthulhu-athon"! These are the kind of problems you want to have, eh?

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The slow decline of the FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) is hardly breaking news, especially to folks who can remember the glory days of the FLGS back in the 80s. It's a double-whammy, really: the hobby is becoming increasingly niche as it is, and, thanks to e-retailing and chain stores, local brick-and-mortar businesses across the board are feeling the crunch--even now, some book lover is probably blogging about the sad decline of independently-owned used book stores.

But although I appreciated all this on an intellectual level (hell, I even worked for an independently-owned used book store for over a year and saw up close how tough things are for local businesses these days), it wasn't until this weekend that it finally hit me hard in the face that an era has truly passed.

I've written before about my initiation into gaming via Wargames West (now itself lost and lamented) and its wonderful catalog. Those early experiences inculcated in me a love of browsing the FLGS, of making a "game store run" even if I had nothing in particular in mind that I wanted to spend my ducats on. (I'd almost always find something. Nowadays, not so much.)

Now, I was never one of those folks who would actually hang out at the game store--I was always of the "get in, browse, get out" mode. But I would savor the half-hour or so I'd spend going over the shelves and racks, and delight in finding something that I'd never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends. Throughout the entirety of my adolescence, about 99% of my allowance and spare cash went to my local game store (which actually wasn't that friendly...more on that shortly). Probably explains why I didn't date much in high school...

Anyway.

So like I said, my LGS did not have the F, as it were. I won't name names, but if you're from the L.A. area you probably know who I'm talking about. They were named after a type of soldier, and it was the last of its kind... Right, enough oblique references. So the somewhat, well, gruff and (dare I say?) stingy nature of my LGS created another favorite pastime of mine--checking out the game store scene in any town or city I happened to be traveling through in a somewhat masochistic search for friendlier stores. It became a bit of a ritual of family trips--as soon as we checked in to a hotel, I'd grab the Yellow Pages and look up the local game stores, then try and influence our vacation agenda in such a way as to position myself nearby said stores so I could "pop in." Once I started going on vacations/trips of my own, the habit persisted. And I developed some favorite destinations in the process.

One such destination was Metro Entertainment (née Comics) in Santa Barbara (a frequent "get away" for harried Angelinos, which means it was probably the non-local game store I visited most often). Not only was it jam-packed with RPGs, minis, and, yes, wargames, (and comics too, strangely enough) but the staff was both friendly and well-informed. Oh, and it was tidy and clean and well-lit. And they had sales. All of these were massive improvements over my usual LGS-that-shall-not-be-named.

The last couple times I went, I noted that Metro seemed to be, well, shrinking. Even though they occupied the same retail space, there seemed to be less stuff. This, I think, is endemic to 90% of LGSs out there--and it's what used to make LGSs so amazing, that sort of "crammed to the rafters" feeling. At any rate, I hadn't been back to Metro in several years, but Des and I just got back from a little weekend trip down to Santa Barbara, and...well, to say the place was a shadow of its former self would be doing a disservice to shadows.

Let me re-emphasize: I totally understand why game stores have retrenched, focusing on the holy trinity of D&D, Games Workshop (and its imitators), and CCGs. I really do. Change happens. It's not like we're talking about the demise of a decades- or centuries-old tradition here, either. It's a phase or something that existed for maybe 15 years, tops. And thanks to the Internet, nothing's really changed as far as access to ephemeral gaming products goes--if anything, the Internet provides even greater access and choice than even the vaunted Wargames West once did. But, much like comparing PDFs to printed books, there's a certain...loss. A sense that something great has passed by, possibly for good. In summation, ennui!

Post-script: I'd still like to give a shout out to Metro for their continued commitment to sales and discounts. They had several boxes full of Dragon and White Dwarf back issues, all marked at 99 cents (and wasn't it kind of depressing to see a bunch of issues that I used to own in the bargain bin--there's a part of me that still looks at Dragon #215 as "recent"). And, thanks to a coupon on Google, I got 15% off on a couple nifty hardback collections (Dan Dare and Flash Gordon--sweet!). So the trip was not a wash by any means, and frankly I'm happy just to see Metro still in business. Several of our other favorite destinations were long gone, sadly. Santa Barbara in general seems to be changing for the worse.

Post-script the Second: I'd also like to acknowledge that there are still game stores that carry on the grand old traditions of yore. My local example would be Gator Games down in San Bruno. It's in a tiny little storefront, but it's absolutely packed to the rafters, like all good game stores should be. And they have regular sales (I picked up several Rifts books a couple weeks ago at 50% off), and a friendly, informed staff. And, perhaps most importantly, they carry items that I've never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends...

(Another good one is the Gamescape up in San Rafael, which is similarly packed with goodness and even has a shelf for indie games. Still haven't checked out Games of Berkeley, I've heard that's a good one too. Though they said the same thing about Endgame in Oakland and that left me thoroughly unimpressed...OK, enough rambling about Bay Area game stores.)
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